“The least I can do is teach them how to throw a punch” – Sports Gazette visited Stonebridge Boxing Club in Harlesden to meet Awo Abukor, an amateur boxer who started a ladies-only boxing class to encourage more Muslim women to participate in sport.
A Muslim woman in sport is usually only mentioned in mainstream media under extraordinary circumstances: either she is not allowed to compete due to traditional uniform policies, or she is the first Olympic athlete to compete and win while wearing a hijab.
The latter is American-Muslim fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, whose bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics resulted in a Barbie doll being modeled after her. The doll is part of the Barbie “Shero” line, honouring women who break boundaries and, as the company puts it, “inspire countless girls who never saw themselves represented.”
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Thank you @Mattel for announcing me as the newest member of the @Barbie Shero family! The Barbie Shero Program recognizes women who break boundaries to inspire the next generation of girls and I am so excited to join this incredible group of women. I’m proud to know that little girls everywhere can now play with a Barbie who chooses to wear hijab! This is a childhood dream come true 😭💘 #shero #ibtihajbarbie
While this is a great step towards inclusivity, what about the Muslim girls who don’t participate in sport to compete? The ones who don’t have what it takes to become an Olympian? Who represents those girls?
Stonebridge Boxing Club in Harlesden was mainly a place for boys and men before Awo Abukor started to teach her own class. The London-born Somali instructor acknowledges that regular women who wear a hijab in sport are massively underrepresented in the media.
She said: “Not everyone does it [boxing] to complete. Some are just here for fun, some for fitness or strength. I know there are a lot of Muslim women who want to come, they just don’t know my class exists yet.”
However, the 23-year-old’s class is not exclusively for Muslims. In her opinion, that would be counter-productive. “I want to give all women a place where they can train freely without necessarily the aim to compete,” she said.
When Nike released their Pro Hijab line, it was advertised as a product that ‘eliminates the performance problems associated with wearing a traditional hijab during competition.’
However, when asked if the hijab had ever hindered their sports performance, the Muslim girls in Awo’s class unanimously disagreed. One girl jokingly added: “It actually absorbs sweat wonderfully.
“People think it’s like a noose around your neck. I mean, it can get hot but it’s just a light material tied into a turban or lightly wrapped over my shoulders.”
Awo’s boxing class is open to any woman who wants to spend her Sundays learning how to throw a punch.